"Patch of Dirt" Free Excerpt
Near eleven p.m. and back at the ranch, Rita banged on the door of the bunkhouse, then banged again. Joe opened the door. He looked like he had slept in his clothes. He blinked and shook his head to clear it.
“I thought you weren’t coming back until Sunday.”
“Well, I didn’t. Did I?” He could see she was angry by the way she rocked back and forth, a bottle of whiskey in her hand. She hadn’t buttoned her light denim jacket and wore a brown skirt and a low cut white blouse.
She motioned him to follow her with a big sweep of her arm and took a drink from the bottle, then passed it to Joe.
“You better take a drink,” she said. “You’re going to need it. We’re going for a drive.”
“You’re too drunk to drive,” he said, pushing the bottle away.
“If you don’t want to go then fuck you. I can always go into a bar and find someone else. It’ll be easy. All I have to do is snap my fingers.” She held up her right hand. “Just like this.” She snapped her fingers.
Joe snapped back.
She slapped him. He raised his hand as if to strike her, then shook his head. She smiled. He knew he was beaten.
They got into her SUV. She fumbled with her keys.
“Fuck,” she said.
He grabbed her wrist to steady her. She shook loose, found the ignition, and put the key into it.
“Where are we going?” said Joe.
“Shut up and have a drink. You’re going to need it.”
The Jupiter was a sports bar in the next county over from Big Horn. The kind of place Joe would never frequent. The younger crowd and too many noisy TVs made him feel out of place. A small group of beer drinkers had gathered around the center of the room to watch Rita run the pool table on a much shorter man. Peanut shells scrunched loudly under her feet as she moved lithely about knowing she had an audience.
Rita winked devilishly at Joe.
The game ended. She took the ten dollar bill from the table and stuffed it into her bra then placed the cue stick back into the rack.
The onlookers drifted away. Some took a last long look at Rita the way Joe knew they would.
The other man took the cue ball from a side pocket and hit it back and forth, then hurried outside. He stopped for a moment, lit a cigarette and disappeared off into the dark.
“Ten bucks, just like that,” she snapped her fingers.
“It’s money, isn’t it?” he said. “As if you need anymore.”
“This is my money.”
“Then you can buy the next round.”
She grabbed a chair at a vacant table and signaled the waitress.
“A pitcher.” She tossed the ten dollars onto the table.
“I didn’t know you played pool,” said Joe.
“I found I had a talent for it. Gunnar had a few customers who liked to watch women in lingerie play. The horny ones liked to screw on the table.”
If she had expected any reaction from Joe she was mistaken. His test at the high line would be just what he deserved. She hoped he’d fail as the others had. He needed to be taken down a peg or two. But did he really? She was confused.
The waitress returned with the pitcher. Joe poured a glass and watched the foam break apart. Rita drank quickly then poured another glass. She jiggled her right foot.
Joe knew something had happened, but said nothing. It was none of his business. Her eyes were expressionless as she stared at him. He studied a young looking chestnut-hair woman at the bar. Rita jabbed him in the ribs.
“You’re with me.”
She stared down at her glass. “I went to see my mother,” she said. “She’s as dead to me as your mother is to you.”
She wiped a tear from her eye. Her life was closing around him like a fine spider web.
Rita stood and he followed her outside to the SUV. Clouds hid the stars, and the air was very still. He didn’t like the uneasy clammy feel of the night.
Rita’s face drifted in and out of shadow as they left the city limits. She turned the SUV to the north. The headlights bounced crazily over a dirt road. A farmhouse appeared and through a window two shapes sat in front of a TV.
She turned onto a well-maintained gravel road, handed him the whiskey, crossed a small creek, and stopped by the power lines that straddled the ridge.
Rita rolled down the window and shut the engine off. “Listen.”
She opened the door and got out. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Joe opened the door and hesitated. The electricity in the air made the hair on the back of his head tingle.
Silhouetted against a tower, she motioned him.
“Watch this.” She picked up a rock and threw it at the power lines. The rock missed and rattled off the metal tower.
She bent down, found a stick, then stepped deliberately towards the nearest tower where she stopped, looked up and began to climb.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said.
“I’ve been a lot drunker than I am now.” She cocked her head. “Don’t be such an asshole.”
About half way up she stopped and tossed the stick upward. It hit the wires and they sparked. She descended quickly to the ground and started to laugh.
“Let’s see what you’re made of, cowboy. Show your auntie what you can do.” She stood with her hands on her hips.
Her eyes dared him. She tossed him a stick. Joe caught it and steadied himself. He had no choice.
He took a step towards the tower, then another. His feet crunched through the dry grass and weeds. This was a game he didn’t like. The wires buzzed overhead. He put his foot on the ladder and began to climb. The metal vibrated under his fingers.
He remembered the pictures he’d seen of birds that had been tangled on power lines, their bodies becoming conductors, shorting out the lines. The pictures showed a black shape hanging upside-down with three men staring at it. Who would stare at him?
He stopped. The crackle of the wires made his ears hurt. The air buzzed and felt hot. He lowered his hand and arced the stick upward. It made contact with the wires and bounced off with a flash of light that exploded above him.
“Holy shit.” She jumped up and down. “You did it. You fucking did it.”
He smelled burnt wood and the acrid scent of electrical wire. His body shook. He started back down, slowly at first. A few feet from the ground he let go of the ladder and fell backward onto Rita. They rolled on the ground and looked at each other. Rita rose to her knees and brushed the leaves from her hair. Joe stared at her. She leaned towards him as if to kiss him, smiled and rose.
Rita pulled the SUV into a rutted parking lot by a burnt out motel. Next to it was a pool fed by a hot spring. The white steam against the ruins reminded Joe of a prehistoric cauldron.
She shut off the SUV and stepped out into the night, giving Joe a nod to follow. She took off her jacket and laid it on the side of the pool, then peeled off her clothes. She let out a whoop and jumped into the water. The steam swallowed her. Joe quickly shed his clothes. Without saying anything he dove in.
He came quickly to the surface and looked for her. She lay on her back staring at the sky. She rolled over and swam to him.
“I shouldn’t love you,” she said in a breathy girlish voice. “But I do, you crazy fucking cowboy. I really do.” She splashed water at him then dove under the surface.
Joe wondered how much he really loved her. He’d tired of her games and her constant teasing. Above him clouds hid the stars.
The drive through the darkness to the ranch seemed to take forever. Rita stared straight ahead and didn't speak. Joe lost himself in the monotony of the passing ranches, counting the minutes until she made the right turn into the ranch, parked the SUV, and switched it off.
Joe started to get out. He needed to sleep. Rita grabbed his arm.
“Wait. When Frank got real sick last year with the shrapnel, he just lay there on the couch where he could watch me. He said I was strong and full of life. He said it made him feel good just to see me move. No one else ever said things like that to me before. You understand, don’t you? How about a nightcap before…. Frank won't mind. He'd join us if he were here.”
Joe shook his head. “Frank. Frank. Frank. I don't want to hear about him anymore.”
She slid out of the SUV and walked unsteadily towards the house.
Joe stood for a moment trying to clear his mind and knew he had no choice except to follow her into the kitchen. He had to see how this game was going to play out and who would win. She took off her jacket and motioned for him to follow her down the hallway to Frank's study.
Joe, too restless to sit, paced back and forth. She poured out two glasses of Frank’s whiskey, then sat and showed off her legs while she sipped her drink. Joe continued to pace, stopped, then turned to face her. In a long sensuous motion she drew her hands down her legs. When she reached her ankles, she looked up, caught his eye and smiled invitingly. Even though her eyes told him what he had been waiting for, he no longer wanted her the way she wanted him.
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